Strolling Shanghai’s Bund (Part 2)
By Monique Burns
Strolling along the Huangpu River, through the venerable district known as the Bund, is one of the great pleasures of visiting Shanghai, China’s dazzling coastal metropolis. Not only do the Bund’s ornate 19th and early 20th-century buildings form a stunning visual tableau, but they offer fascinating insights into the lives and times of Shanghai’s early British, American and European traders, bankers and shippers.
In Strolling Shanghai’s Bund, Part 1, you saw such landmarks as Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund at No. 1, the former Shanghai Club where British “taipans” once played billiards and sipped “pink gins.” You visited the dove-gray China Merchants Bank Building, at No. 6, Romanesque-style headquarters of Russell & Co., one-time dealers in tea, silk, porcelain and opium. At No. 9, the verandas of the red-brick China Merchants Steam Navigation Co. Building cast their spell. At No. 12, you saw the HSBC Building, once the grandest structure between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait, and at No. 13, the Customs House whose lofty clock tower was modeled after London’s Big Ben.
Continue along Zhongshan Road to No. 14, the former China Bank of Communications Building. With a white-concrete exterior and black-marble door frames, it’s one of only a couple of true Art Deco buildings on the Bund. Designed in 1937 by Hungarian architect C.H. Gonda, it wasn’t completed until 1948. Peek into the Entrance Hall to see elaborate curving staircases with copper railings.
Next door at No. 15 is the Central Building, formerly the St. Petersburg Russo-Asiatic Bank Building. Modeled after Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles, it was designed by young German architect Heinrich Becker and English architect Richard Seel. Completed in 1902, it was Shanghai’s first Western-style Neoclassical building and the first with elevators and indoor plumbing.
Becker’s masterpiece also housed the only joint-venture bank between the Qing Dynasty and a foreign power. Eventually, the two partners would fund construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway stretching across Manchuria.
Beside No. 16, the little Greek temple known as The Bank of Taiwan Building, rises the narrow Neoclassical AIA Building at No. 17. Completed in 1924, it once housed the North-China Daily News, Shanghai’s first English-language daily.
Another tenant was Cornelius Vander Starr, the “King of Insurance” who founded American Asiatic Underwriters, forerunner of the multinational AIG corporation. An American, Starr also was a spy for the OSS, precursor of the CIA. Note the building’s two entrances, two towers, and eight Atlas-like figures supporting the roof. “Atlantes” or “telemones,” they’re made of Italian granite and each took Japanese craftsmen five months to carve.
The late multi-Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon established three eateries there: L’Atelier Shanghai for innovative bistro-style fare, the Salon de Thé for pastries, tea and coffee, and La Boutique bakery. Also here: Mr. & Mrs. Bund with upscale French comfort food; Ginza Onodera for Japanese sushi, tempura and teppanyaki, and Hakkasan for creative Cantonese in a “Chinoise-chic” setting.
Completed in 1923, the five-story Greek Revival building also houses the Ailing Foundation, benefitting up-and-coming Chinese artists, and providing education and medical care to disadvantaged Chinese children.
Between 2002 and 2004, Venice-born Filippo Gabbiani of Kokaistudios renovated the building with its English-crafted bronze gates, 23-foot-high lobby, and vestibule graced with Breccia marble columns and a Roman marble mosaic floor. Gabbiani’s sensitive work earned a 2006 UNESCO Heritage Award.
Steps away, at No. 19, rises the Swatch Art Peace Hotel a red and white brick Victorian pile at the corner of Zhongshan and East Nanjing roads. Built in 1908 as the Palace Hotel, it boasted 120 rooms and a 300-seat dining room.
A year after opening, the Palace hosted the 1909 meeting of the International Opium Commission, hastening that trade’s end in China. The Palace also entertained Chinese luminaries like Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who gave a 1911 banquet celebrating his Presidential victory, and his successor Chiang Kai-Shek whose 1927 engagement party was held there.
After World War II, the building reopened in 1965 as the Peace Hotel South Building, an annex of the Peace Hotel. In 2010, following extensive renovation, No. 19 reopened again as the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, housing the Swiss Swatch Group’s Blancpain, Omega and Swatch watch boutiques. Step inside the dazzling lobby adorned with crystal chandeliers, burnished wood-paneled walls, gleaming marble floors and gold-tipped columns.
Upstairs, two floors are set aside for the Swatch Group’s Artist Residency program, providing deserving artists of all ilks with apartments and studios for 3-6 months. Head to the top floor to Shook! with a restaurant serving Asian-Western fusion cuisine and a spacious roof garden offering splendid river-and-skyscraper views.
At No. 20, on the corner of Zhongshan and East Nanjing roads, rises the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Built in 1929, the stunning Art Deco building, the very first in China, was known as Sassoon House after British real-estate developer Ellice Victor Sassoon, fourth generation of the Sassoon Family, a famous Sephardic-Jewish clan that originated in Baghdad.
In 1845, David Sassoon & Co., dealers in the lucrative triangle trade of textiles and opium between India, China and England, opened in Shanghai’s International Settlement. The Sassoon Family quickly became associated with upper-crust Brits in England, India and China. Some historians even credit the Sassoons with naming the Bund, which means “embankment” in Persian, language of their Iraqi forebears.
Sassoon House included Sir Victor Sassoon’s penthouse, where the Cambridge-educated developer threw outrageous theme parties, and, from 1929 until 1956, the luxury Cathay Hotel, with 200 rooms, marble baths with silver taps, and dining rooms featuring colorful Art Deco chandeliers by René Lalique.
In 1959, after 10 years as a municipal government headquarters, the Chinese government reopened the hotel and renamed it the Peace Hotel after the successful first International Symposium on World Peace held there. In 2010, after a three-year renovation, the hotel again reopened as the luxurious five-star Fairmont Peace Hotel.
Stroll through the stunning lobby with its domed, stained-glass rotunda surrounded by Art Deco bas-reliefs of Old Shanghai scenes. Peek into the dark wood-paneled bar where the Old Jazz Band–whose forerunners entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward–perform nightly. Head down the side corridor decorated with vintage posters from movies shot at the hotel. Have tea and French pastries in Victor’s Café. And don’t miss the little Peace Museum on the second floor, with its eclectic collection of crockery and silver, celebrity letters and other memorabilia.
Next door at No. 23 is the 1937 Bank of China Building. An example of “Chinese Art Deco,” its European-style Art Deco exterior is graced with Chinese-style lattice windows featuring cloud patterns and an overhanging glazed-tile roof supported by stone brackets.
Founded in 1912 and the country’s oldest surviving bank, the Bank of China has remained here for more than 80 years. Peek into the grand Banking Hall with 16 black-marble fluted columns. Also on-site: A free history museum. But since reservations must be made by phone in Chinese, if you don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, ask your hotel personnel to call 021-6329-2618.
Beside the Bank of China is the ICBC Building at No. 24, one-time home of Yokohama Specie Bank, one of Shanghai’s earliest Japanese banks. Also designed by Palmer & Turner, its Japanese granite exterior sports black iron gates, two Ionic columns and sculpted Buddha heads. In the main hall, there’s a splendid oval glass dome and gray marble columns with gold capitals. Also on-site: handsome bronze sculptures depicting helmets and arms of ancient Japanese warriors.
A few doors away, at No. 26, is the Yangtze Insurance Association Building. In 1862, American merchant Edward Cunningham, who also served as U.S. Vice Consul in Shanghai, founded the company to insure the vessels and cargoes of Russell & Co.’s Shanghai Steam Navigation Co.
In a now-famous four-page letter written in 1869, Cunningham opposed plans to clutter the Bund’s river frontage with wharves. “The sole beauty of Shanghai is the Bund,” he wrote. “It is the only place where residents can get fresh air from the river in an evening promenade.”
Today, the building houses both the Agricultural Bank of China and the Bund Art Center of the China National Academy of Painting. As for the Bund promenade, rebuilt and widened by Dutch architect Paulus Snoeren in 1986, it’s still one of Shanghai’s greatest pleasures.
Next door, at No. 27, is The House of Roosevelt. Managed by Roosevelt China Investments Corp., with offices in Boston, Hong Kong and Shanghai, it’s chaired by Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. Throughout the building, you’ll see teddy bears, as well as portraits of the two Roosevelt presidents, “Rough Rider” Teddy and cousin Franklin.
The block-long Neoclassical-style House of Roosevelt Building features an elaborate black cast-iron gate and three stories of colonnades rising from a rusticated stone base. The building was originally constructed in 1922 for Jardine, Matheson & Co., once the largest trading company in China and the East, dealing in tea, silk, cotton and, not surprisingly, opium. Indeed, the company’s two Scottish founders urged British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to wage two Opium Wars against China to protect that trade. Later, the company branched into insurance and shipping. In 1876, Jardine, Matheson & Co. constructed China’s first railway line.
Even more enticing than the building’s history are its restaurants. The Roosevelt Wine Cellar Restaurant, featuring Shanghai’s largest wine cellar, offers a foreign-accented American menu including five types of oysters, from French Gillardeau to Irish Harty, and mains like Greater Omaha Tenderloin and Boston Lobster. The Sky Restaurant, with an elegant dining room and two terraces, serves fine European fare.
At the Roosevelt Sky Bar roof garden, enjoy one of many champagnes or cocktails as you take in the Huangpu River and Shanghai’s skyscraper-dotted Lujiazui skyline. Afterward, press on and visit a few more historic Bund buildings. Or simply kick back and soak up the magnificent views.
IF YOU GO
Pick up the free brochure, Shanghai: The Bund Architectures. For more information, buy the excellent Shanghai Bund Architecture by Michelle Qiao and Zhang Xuefei (Tongji University Press, 2015).
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.